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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Blessed are Those Who Kiss Tin Foil


The Beatitudes - Matthew 5:1-12
All Saints’ Sunday
November 2, 2008

The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

What makes you happy? What brings you joy? What makes life worth living?

At first blush, these questions may seem somewhat inappropriate. Today is the day, after all, when we remember ‘all the saints, who from their labors rest’.

That’s a lovely, gentle, poetic expression, which does little to conceal the fact that this day, for many of us, is a day of the painful memory of the loss of our loved ones. How, then, can the preacher speak of happiness? How, then, can this sermon be about joy?

I know this much to be true: There’s nothing quite like loss to bring questions like these into sharp focus. There’s nothing quite like the threat of being without to make you appreciate what you have.

Jesus clearly knew this. In this, his first public sermon, “The Sermon on the Mount,” he takes what is not and turns it upside down and on its head, to talk about the reality of the Realm of God.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he said, “for theirs is the kingdom of God.” And, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

I know what you’re thinking. “Wait! Hang on a second!” you’re saying, “How can those who are poor in any way consider themselves blessed, much less happy? How can those who mourn count themselves as blessed, or in any way knowing joy?”

It is an odd thing, is it not, how loss can bring greater appreciation to what makes life worth living?

I still remember the moment when my father’s battle with congestive heart failure reached a point where the doctor told him that he could no longer work in his garden because it was too much of a stress on his cardio-pulmonary system.

It was the very early part of September of 1997. My father had just delivered a bushel basket of fresh tomato, zucchini and corn to Dr. Kirkaldy, our family doctor ever since I was 9 years old. It was something my father had done every year at that time of year for as long as I could remember.

My mother reported that my father was wheezing as he walked up the path to Dr. Kirkaldy’s home. By the time he got to the front door, he was having difficulty breathing. Dr. Kirkaldy greeted him at the door and, urging him to sit on the steps, gave him a nebulizer treatment right then and there.

Once my father had sufficiently recovered, Dr. Kirkaldy rendered his verdict, “John,” he said, seriously, “This will have to be your last garden. You simply don’t have the capacity to continue to work this hard.”

My father shook his head sadly and said, “Doc, I’ve been tending a garden since I was a young boy. My earliest and some of my best memories are of helping my dad in his garden.”

My father wiped the sweat off his upper lip, looked Dr. Kirkaldy square in the eye and said, “There just isn’t any sense living if I can’t have my hands in the ground, if I don’t have dirt on my hands.”

My mother reports that, every day after that visit, my father would spend hours, looking out on the place that had been his garden. He would stand at the edge of the field for hours until it got so cold my mother would insist he come in. Then, he would spend hours standing in front of the window, looking out at the place where his corn and melon plants, his tomato and zucchini had once grown.

I suspect that, until that very moment, my father didn’t really know just how much joy gardening brought him. Until he had to face the future without tending to living things, with his hands in the earth, the rich, brown soil, he didn’t realize how happy it made him to do that. It wasn’t work to him, which is why he was able to do that kind of labor intensive work into his eighties.

That was in very early September, 1997. My father died in in mid-March, 1998.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” And, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

What makes you happy? What brings you joy? What makes life worth living?

Sometimes, it’s attaining as adults what we didn’t have as children.

A few years ago, there was a commercial depicting a young African American man who had just moved his family into their first home. He is standing on his front steps, the door is wide open, and you can see his wife and children making their way around large boxes in the living room.

He is talking on his cordless phone, “Hello, Dad?” he says, “I called to say that we just moved in. Yes, yes we did. I’m standing on my own front steps of my own new home, Dad. Yes, Dad, and I have the air conditioner on, Dad. Turned all the way up. Yup, that’s right. And guess what Dad? The door is open. Wide open. And the AC is on.” And then, he laughs. Hard. And, long.

It reminds me of one of our daughters. We had helped her move into her first apartment, and left her to get settled. Later that night, she called us and left this message on our answering machine:

“Mom, I’m just home from my first trip to the grocery store to stock my shelves. Guess what? I bought cereal. Guess what kind of cereal, Mom? I bought a box of Captin’ Crunch. And, a box of Lucky Charms. I think I’m going to have a bowl of Captin’ Crunch for supper and a bowl of Lucky Charms for dessert. Bye . . . BEEP.”

That was in 1995. Today, that same child would never, EVER eat Captin’ Crunch or Lucky Charms Cereal. Today, she eats fresh vegetables and brown rice and lectures me about the need for calcium and vitamin D supplements for. . .“mature women.”

I’m thinking that the guy in that commercial is now yelling at his kids to keep the door closed when the AC is on.

What makes you happy? What brings you joy? What makes life worth living?

Jesus said, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” And, he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

This year, one of our daughters took a business trip to India. She was there for three weeks. Never, ever, she claimed, had she seen such poverty. The suffering deeply disturbed her and broke her heart.

“It makes me realize just how blessed I am,” she said. As we emailed and text messaged and even telephoned back and forth, I remembered something I had long since forgotten. A lesson my grandmother had taught me when I was but a wee child.

My grandmother was born in a rural village outside of Lisbon, Portugal. She was a humble peasant living a life of harsh poverty which held an even more bleak future.

When she died an American citizen 85 years later, she owned a home on an acre and a half of land, and was equally proud and astounded to report that, in her will, she was leaving $1,000 each to each of her 9 living children.

If there was more than that, her instructions were that it would be divided equally among them, but to be distributed to her grandchildren, of which there were 22.

That knowledge that she, a poor immigrant, had money to leave her children after her death, gave her a happiness that occasionally made her giddy with joy. That would have been an impossible, extravagant dream when she was a child, living a hard scrabble life of a peasant girl in her rural village in Portugal. It was certainly more than her parents had been able to leave her.

I remember her saying that her life had been hard, but that she had been richly blessed, and had been even more deeply blessed by being able to pass along some of her affluence to her children after her death.

It was what she did when she was alive, however, that was the real blessing. My grandmother always wore an apron, as many women of that generation did. She called it her “house coat.” Made of cotton, it was something she wore over her dress, to protect it from being splattered by cooking grease or dusty from cleaning.

In the front, right hand pocket of her house coat, she kept her can of snuff and her hand embroidered handkerchief. In the front, left hand pocket (I remember it well), she always kept a package of Juicy Fruit gum.

When we got home from school, we grandkids would run to her side to get our afternoon snack of a stick of gum – always delivered to us on the Q.T. Our parents hated for us to have that much “useless sugar” as my mother called it – probably about as much as I hated Lucky Charms and Captin’ Crunch Cereal.

My grandmother always did a strange thing – she would hand us the stick of gum, but before we were allowed to take it and open it, we had to kiss the tin foil wrapper which encased it.

She said that in her country, no one could even afford to buy that much tin foil, much less the gum that was inside it. She said she wanted us to appreciate what we had in this life, things that children in other countries could only dream of.

If we kissed the tin foil, she said, it would remind us to appreciate what we had, and that knowledge, that appreciation would deepen our happiness and true joy. “Count your blessings,” she would say, “and kiss the tin foil.”

Back then, I just thought she was a weird old lady who couldn’t speak English. Now, all these years later, I think my grandmother had it right.

I think we should probably spend more time kissing tin foil before we chew that piece of gum. At the very least, we should give thanks for our food before we eat it – and yes, at our dinner table, whether we are alone or with our families; and yes, even when the kids roll their eyes; and yes, in restaurants in public places.

I know this much to be true: There’s nothing quite like loss to bring the important questions of life into sharp focus. There’s nothing quite like the threat of being without to make you appreciate what you have.

So, on this day when we honor those who have died, I want you to consider your blessings – the surprise gifts which you got from those who now rest in Eternal Light whose value you could not fully appreciate then, but do now.

Today, I ask you to ‘count your blessings, name them one’ by one (as the lyrics of that old camp song advise). Oh, of course, we’ll be sad for the loss of our loved ones, but instead of dwelling on that, consider these three questions:

What makes you happy? What brings you joy? What makes life worth living?

I do believe that it is in sitting with and praying over these questions that you will come to discover the blessings of the saints whom we honor today. And, I believe, you will also come to know how deeply blessed you are.

Today. Right now. In this moment. In this very place. And, it won’t have anything to do with the stuff that you own as much as it has to do with the stuff that is in your heart and in your soul and buried deep in the inner recesses of the folds of your memory.

When you get in touch with the stuff of that happiness, I suspect you, too, may even entertaining the thought of beginning the weird practice of kissing tinfoil.

Jesus said, “Blessed are you when men shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.”

Amen.

2 comments:

whiteycat4104 said...

Elizabeth, thanks for this wonderful sermon. It made my day!

FranIAm said...

And to think that if I did come down to visit it might have been today...and then I could have heard this.

This is amazing- a real gift, such stories of your life.

Thank you... or perhaps I should simply say, obrigado.